The Office of Sheriff is believed to be the oldest law enforcement office known within the common law system. Some historians consider the prototype of the Office of Sheriff to be the ancient Roman proconsul, while others date the position to pre-Anglo-Saxon times, believing that it may have derived from Saxon Germany prior to the 9th century. It is a position always accorded great dignity and high trust.
As England developed after 1066 A.D., the office became more structured. In this era, every freeman had an obligation to preserve the peace and pledge the good behavior of his neighbor within the bailiwick. When a crime was committed, all citizens were required to raise the hue and cry, call together neighbors, and pursue any criminal fleeing from the district. Groups failing to apprehend the lawbreaker were fined by the Crown.
The Crown placed this responsibility for mutual police action upon groups of 10 families, each of which was known as a tithing. These were later incorporated into the hundred -- larger units combining 10 tithings. From this developed the first real police officer -- the constable. He was appointed by the local noblemen and placed in charge of the wagons and equipment of each hundred.
Later, the hundreds were grouped to form a shire, which was the geographical area equivalent to a county. An overseer of the shire, called a shire-reeve was appointed by the Crown to supervise each county. This position was the lineal antecedent of tens of thousands who would follow and become known as Sheriff. While the constable's authority remained limited to his original hundred, the shire-reeve was responsible to the local noblemen. From a supervisory post, the shire-reeve later branched out to take an active part in the pursuit and apprehension of lawbreakers.
The Sheriff became a vital link between the Crown and the freeman of the counties. Generally of noble birth, he was frequently appointed as a representative of the Crown, although this varied with the king or queen in power. In some instances, the Sheriff was elected. In earlier times, the Sheriff was the keeper and the bailiff of his county, obligations the position still holds today. Some historians say the office was developed to serve as a ministerial post of the Court of the Crown, as well as "keeper of the peace of the Crown." Thus, the Sheriff had duties as both an enforcement and judicial officer when there were violations of the Crown's sanctions. He was also in charge of the militia, made up of all able-bodied men who were required to assist in keeping the peace, and serving as extensions of the king's peacekeeping powers.
Throughout the centuries, these functions have been altered considerably but have what is known as the common law of England as their legal base. Today's Sheriff is almost exclusively a part of the executive branch of government with ancient judicial powers having been severed and transformed into the various criminal and civil courts. Still, the modern Sheriff has close liaison with the court and as bailiff, serves as an officer of the court.
Modern United States
As the United States developed, many of the common law concepts and duties of the Sheriff were embodied in the statutes of the various states and territories. In many states, the Sheriff's revenue and tax collecting functions were transferred by law to other elective or appointed offices, leaving the Sheriff primarily responsible for enforcement of the law and the care and custody of prisoners.
In Florida, the office of Sheriff was authorized and established by the original state constitution of 1885 and a revised constitution of 1968. It is specified that a Sheriff shall be elected for a term of four years in each of the 67 counties, except those with a home rule providing otherwise. Also prescribed are the Sheriff's powers, duties and annual compensation, which is established by the legislature based on the population of the county he serves. The first election to fill the Office of Sheriff was held in 1888, and regular elections have taken place every four year since then.
In our state, the Sheriff holds the traditional role of conservator of the peace and executive officer of the courts. He enforces criminal laws through apprehension and arrest of violators and carries out orders of the courts. The Sheriff serves judicial process by which people are brought into court, where rights and liabilities are determined. He enforces those liabilities that are established by the court. It is the Sheriff's responsibility to maintain law and order in his county and ensure the protection of persons and property therein. He is the keeper of all persons held in the county jail, responsible for their feeding, safekeeping and welfare. He must cooperate with other sheriffs by serving judicial process in his county which originates in other counties. He must arrest persons found in his county for whom warrants were issued elsewhere. As chief law enforcement officer of his county, the Sheriff must ensure due process of law guaranteed by the Constitution is complied with before any person is deprived of life, liberty or property.